Frog Leg Provencal, foreground and Moules Provencal are some of the small plates at Le Rendez-vous French restaurant in Tucson, Ariz., on Tuesday, October 2, 2012. Photo by A.E. Araiza/Arizona Daily Star 

A.E. Araiza/ Arizona Daily Star

Le Rendez-Vous can be so retro - the waiters are dressed in black, the menu is in French, the servings are hefty.

But slowly, deliciously, the 31-year-old restaurant in a cozy converted midtown home is becoming au courant.

Earlier this year, Jean Claude Berger, the original owner/chef, passed the keys of this Tucson landmark on to his son, Gordon.

The bright front room under the red canopy now has a chalkboard where specials are scribbled. There's a happy hour. And the inner sanctum, the original dining room, though still dimly lit and formal, now has a spiffed-up concrete floor.

The most notable change is in the addition of a small-plates menu, put together by the 20-something chef, Ryan Doran. The traditional menu, with French classics, is offered as well.

But it is the small plates, $5.50 each, that made us say "ooh la la."

There are about 10 items on it, and it would be easy to make a meal with just two or three.

And that would be a happy meal, indeed.

On one visit, we concentrated on those small plates.

The two pan-seared sea scallops, which sat on a bed of creamy white-bean fricassee dotted with grape tomatoes, were cooked so that they were still slightly firm and bursting with sweetness. Scallops are very easy to overcook, which robs them of their delectablity. It was sublime to bite into this baby and experience the full flavor of the mollusk.

We were nearly as giddy with the shrimp stuffed with crab. Two large, pink perfectly cooked shrimp were curled around and hugging an abundance of sweet crabmeat. They demanded to be eaten slowly and savored.

A couple of oversized frog legs, crispy on the outside, moist and tender in, shared the plate with provençal tomatoes spiked with capers and a bit of garlic. The savory provençal was just the right accompaniment to the mild frog legs.

The two chunks of seared salmon - fresh and wild tasting - had a lemon aioli on the side. We piled the buttery salmon and silky aioli onto a crustini laced with dill and took a bite. Then another. And another. We were smitten.

As we were with the tender escargot - three of them - doused in a butter that had a hint of garlic, which allowed the taste of the snails to linger.

On another visit, we stuck to the traditional menu. Naturally, a cup of French onion soup ($6) was necessary - we had a job to do, after all. The broth was rich and sweet with slowly sauteed onions and topped with a thick layer of Gruyère. Just as it should be.

Though we might not had ordered it had we known how abundant the entrees were. But we soldiered on.

The Carnard Montmorency ($28) was a half of a duck, cooked so that the meat was juicy and tender and the skin crisp. It's not the best looking dish - the cherries in the basting sauce make it appear dark and even a bit foreboding. But don't let that fool you - the Griottine cherries are tart and macerated in kirsch, giving a sweet/sharp taste to the skin.

Le Rendez-Vous used to make quite a production out of its beef Wellington ($30) - each was an individual serving of a gorgeous beef tenderloin wrapped in a golden, delicate puff pastry.

These days, the restaurant doesn't do the individual serving, but rather slices of the meat. It was a tad disappointing - while it was so 1965, those individual Wellingtons were very beautiful. Still, the dish featured the mushroom duxelle and foie gras stuffing between the pastry and the meat, and came with the delicate and earthy demi-glace. One bite and we realized that that thick medium-rare slice was just as good as we remembered.

Each dish came with sides of firm asparagus and crispy pommes Anna, thin slices of potatoes baked in a sinful amount of butter. While these were on the too-crisp side, we abide by Julia Child's axiom: "You can never have too much butter."

It would be almost immoral to skip dessert at a French restaurant, no matter how full one might be.

And the chocolate cake ($9) met expectations. It had a moist cake, fudgey filling and a chocolate ganache that even the celebrated French chef Daniel Boulud would have approved of.

But he might not have been too happy with the crème brûlée ($7) which was a little too eggy and grainy, a couple of signs of overcooking.

Le Rendez-Vous has an older customer base that has loved them for years; on our visits, it seemed to be drawing in a younger crowd, as well.

Service at the restaurant was mostly attentive and thoughtful, though we had to wait a tad too long for the bill on one of our visits. Then then there was this: On our first visit, the small plate menu wasn't offered. If we hadn't known to ask for it, we might have missed those delectables. On the second visit, it was attached to the larger, traditional menu.

It's a choice you want to know about - while the old school menu is good, that small plate one is a knock-out.


Le Rendez-Vous Bistro & Restaurant

• Where: 3844 E. Fort Lowell Road, 323-7373

• Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays; dinner, 5-9:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays.

• Noise level: Tolerable.

• Alcohol: Cocktails, beer, and a fine wine list.

• Family call: This is a more grown-up kind of place.

• Vegetarian options: Yes.

• Gluten free: Just ask.

• Price range: $20-$30; chateaubriand for two is $65.